Manning and Pennington: Both brains and talent

Vince Lombardi once said that the game is played from the neck up. If that is true, then Monday night’s meeting between the Indianapolis Colts and Miami Dolphins gave us two of the best and brightest quarterbacks in the game.

Colts QB Peyton Manning seems to always be playing with house money since graduating Cum Laude (with distinction) in three years while attending the University of Tennessee. His performance on Monday night served as a clear display of his ability to gather and process information at the line of scrimmage, then execute the game plan with flawless precision.

Dolphins QB Chad Pennington owns the NFL’s all-time completion percentage record, hitting his intended target 66 percent of the time. Such accuracy can be attributed to good decision making and the ability to quickly process large quantities of information, then act at a moment’s notice. Pennington’s credentials includes a Rhodes Scholar candidacy while attending Marshall University, revealing his brain to be his greatest asset.

Someday, Pennington will make a great coach. For now, we should appreciate him more for giving Manning all he could handle on a warm and humid night in south Florida. Manning will one day be in the Hall of Fame, but don’t sleep on Pennington. Like Don Shula, Tom Landry and Tony Dungy, his brains are destined to take him much further than his brawn ever could. And like the others, who’s greatest achievements came long after their playing careers had ended, Pennington could eventually show us all that he and Peyton’s true talents are more alike, especially from the neck up.

Raiders, Chiefs were desperate for win

The way I saw it, first-year head coaches Tom Cable and Todd Haley were each in desperate need of a win in Week 2 following tough losses the previous week.

After losing their 12 straight to the San Diego Chargers, the Oakland Raiders could not afford another loss in the AFC West, much less a second consecutive division loss. Meanwhile, as the second-youngest team in the NFL, the Kansas City Chiefs entered the game trying to avoid losing 25 of their last 26 games.

Those are desperate numbers indeed.

The Raiders arrived at Arrowhead looking for a repeat performance of last year’s Week 2 visit to Kansas City, which yielded 300 rushing yards. Instead, the Raiders offense sputtered for most of the day, producing only 67 total yards on the ground. Raiders QB JaMarcus Russell was even more inconsistent, missing open receivers on easy throws that were intended to get the third-year passer off to a good start. Instead, Russell began the game misfiring on his first five passes and finished the game 7 of 24 for 109 yards.

Chiefs QB Matt Cassel, in his debut as the team’s starter, led his offense to 409 total yards on the day. Aided by 173 yards rushing, the Chiefs out-gained the Raiders offense by 243 yards. However, it was Cassel’s two interceptions — both by Raiders safety Michael Huff — which ultimately cost them the game.

The Raiders, who failed to finish strong in Week 1, closed the Chiefs out with a nine play, 69-yard drive with 1:31 in the final quarter to claim the 13-10 win. Despite being out-played and out-gained, the Raiders won due to one major factor — turnovers.

Turnovers in football are the great equalizer. On Sunday, the Raiders had no interceptions and no fumbles. Thanks to the defense, the two interceptions off Cassel proved to be the difference.

Something new from Jaguars, Colts

A blue collar slug fest has become the norm whenever the Jaguars and Colts hook up for an AFC South tussle.  However, a closer look at the Colts’ 14-12 win that I called on Sunday revealed some new wrinkles in the make up of both teams.

Jacksonville arrived in Indianapolis with a new look on defense with 22 new players on their 53-man roster. Known to primarily use a base 4-3 defense, the Jaguars new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker used variable personnel groupings to morph into a 3-4 front while using five, and sometimes six, defensive backs to confuse and befuddled QB Peyton Manning in the early stages of the game.

Jaguars rookie CB Derek Cox intercepted Manning on the Colts’ first offensive possession while S Sean Considine dropped what would have been a another pick on Indy’s second possession.

The Jags moved rookie DT Terrance Knighton to NT in their 3-4 scheme, while asking last year’s first-round pick, DE Derrick Harvey, to stand up and become an outside linebacker. Despite having a young team who traveled to play a tough divisional opponent, Jacksonville’s new-look defense allowed them to keep the game close before Manning was able to crack the code and find enough answers to win the game with only 14 points.

While curiosity compelled many of us to watch every move of the Colts new coach Jim Caldwell, his new defensive coordinator, Larry Coyer, gave us even more to notice. The Colts were known as an exclusive Tampa 2 defense under former coach Tony Dungy, which employed a 4-3 front and a Cover 2 look in the secondary. Dungy’s defense almost never blitzed linebackers or defensive backs, choosing instead to rush exclusively with their four down lineman. Even with DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis combining for 22 sacks one year ago, the Colts believed they needed to do more this season to help their defensive line get more pressure on the quarterback.

Ultimately, the Colts sealed the deal by using MLB Gary Brackett on consecutive blitzes to pressure Jags QB David Garrard and take over the ball on downs. When Coyer sent Brackett on a blitz, both Freeney and Mathis were left one-on-one with Jaguars rookie OT’s Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton.

The Bookends vs. The Rookies. Thanks to Coyer, guess who won?

A telling preseason for Saints

If the preseason told us anything, it told us that the New Orleans Saints are for real. It told us that Drew Brees may be the league’s best quarterback, and Sean Peyton its best offensive play caller. The preseason may have also revealed that an emerging power running game, and an opportunistic defense, may have finally arrived in the Crescent City.

I’m here to say the preseason didn’t lie.

In Week 1, the Saints scored the most points (45), and Brees threw for the most touchdown passes (6), of any team, en route to the most dominating performance in the league. During a preseason in which RB Mike Bell needed only two games to grab hold of the starting job, he used his 28 carries and 143 yards on Sunday to further solidify his grip as the lead banger in the Saints backfield.

The Saints’ defense forced 10 turnovers in four preseason games, and then showed us in the regular-season opener that it has become a trusted trend after stealing three more takeaways from the youthful Lions offense.

If defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and Bell can supply Peyton and Brees with a top 10 defense and a power running game in 2009, then book’ em a ticket to Miami for Super Bowl XLIV. Right Now!

Big Ben is for real

Even after a slow start in the season opener, Ben Roethlisberger did what he always does … he found a way to win. Even after hitting Hines Ward with mere seconds on the clock in regulation for what appeared to set up a game-winning field goal, Big Ben overcame Ward’s subsequent fumble to lead his team to victory in overtime.

Statistics rarely reveal Roethlisberger’s true worth as a franchise quarterback.

Yeah, he’s sacked a lot, but he often finds a way to win. He worked his magic Thursday night with manipulating pump fakes that lured the Titans secondary out of position and helped uncover his downfield receivers. Even amidst a threatening Titans pass rush, Big Ben remained calm while holding the ball a few more precious seconds until he found his man.

Like a modern-day John Elway, Roethlisberger simply is at his best when the designed play begins to break down. During the second phase of a developing play, Big Ben’s mobility and strength allow him to extend the play and buy more time to find the open man. It is during the extended second phase of a developing play when the defense is most vulnerable. When Ben began to buy more time with his movement, the Titans defense began to break down in both its rush lanes and pass coverage.

Like Elway, Roethlisberger has already won two Super Bowls, and he’s looking for more. He’s young, mobile and tough to tackle in the pocket. He now manipulates coverages and moves defenders like pieces on a chess board. If he keeps this up, the comparisons to Terry Bradshaw come next.

For Roethlisberger, four Super Bowl titles may seem improbable, but if he keeps playing like this, it will not be impossible.

Front office moves make little economic cents

Each year the Labor Day weekend serves as D-Day in the NFL. It is a time when NFL players participate in their own game of “Survivor” and believe me, no one wants to leave the Island.

Anxiety runs high for players waiting for final roster cuts. However, this year the rapid pulse and sweaty palms belong to more than just the players. It seems as though no one is safe during a preseason when critical evaluations have also exposed coaches and front office members to being voted off the Island.

The recent firings of offensive coordinators Jeff Jagodzinski, Chan Gailey and Turk Schonert sends a message that no one is really safe come cut time in the NFL. Even Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson relieved his own son from management duties, hidden behind a change in both title and responsibilities.

The recent shake up at such high levels of an NFL organization has also served as a warning bell of indecisiveness and mismanagement of club resources. Cutting coaches does not necessarily offer financial cuts in teams’ operational budgets. Remember, the clubs are still on the hook for paying the salaries of each one of the coordinators who were recently fired. As a team owner, I wouldn’t want to pay a million dollar salary to someone who is no longer working for me.

The league recently released a report which projects at least 10 to 12 clubs will face one or more television blackouts due to their failure to sell out home games during the 2009 season. How is it that during these tough economic times, NFL teams can still afford to write off huge salaries while dismissing employees, who in some cases were hired just a few months ago? Real world calamities would call for a reassignment in order to cover up poor hiring decisions. Such moves at the club level are contradictory to claims of economic hardships.

Saints are better behind running game, defense

The New Orleans Saints may not have finished the preseason undefeated (3-1), but they accomplished just about every goal on their list.

They have found a power-running game and developed a stable of backs that includes Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas, Mike Bell and Lynell Hamilton.

Heading into the final week of preseason, the Saints ranked second in rushing yards.

Drew Brees completed over 70 percent of his passes during the preseason. Brees needs a healthy crop of targets, which also includes the improved talents of TE Jeremy Shockey, who appears to be on the verge of a rebirth in the Crescent City. WR Rod Harper is a speedster who excels at punt returns having returned two for touchdowns this preseason. He seems to be the favorite to join Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem as the fifth receiver on an immensely talented offense.

Finally, new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams may have given Sean Payton the defense needed to make a Super Bowl run. The Saints tallied 10 takeaways during the preseason and entered the final week allowing the fewest rushing yards in the league. Reserve DE’s Bobby McCray and Anthony Hargrove will join Paul Spicer to replace Charles Grant and Will Smith during their four-game suspensions.

Armed with a fastbreak offense and a opportunistic defense, the Saints are more than ready to make a run at the postseason. With improvements in areas that were once weak, watch out for a team that has the coach, quarterback and defense to go beyond their achievements in 2006, when they made it to the NFC title game.

A few observations after Saints down Texans

After battling one another during a week-long training camp session in the hot Houston sun, the Texans and Saints showcased their top ranked offenses in Week 2 of preseason football Saturday night, a game the Saints won 38-14. Here are a few of my observations.

  • Saints QB Drew Brees missed several days of practice against the Texans following the passing of his mother. Brees showed the ability to refocus and lead his team on a 10 play, 70-yard scoring drive. Brees is a bonafide candidate for league MVP. He and his coach, Sean Peyton, are a driving force that could lead the Saints to the best season in club history.
  • There is a battle for the Saints No. 5 wide receiver spot, and one man has decided to step his game up to declare himself as the front runner for the job. WR Rod Harper’s 79-yard punt return for a touchdown was a thing of beauty. Harper’s sideline, tightrope run could make him the fifth and final receiver to join Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem.
  • More than anything, the Saints have wanted to improve their inside power running game and now their prayers may have been answered.   RBs Pierre Thomas and P.J Hill where very good late in the game and proved they could run by committee. However, veteran Mike Bell has proven to be the leader of the pack. He exploded for 100 yards on 10 carries, including a powerful 46yd run for a touchdown. In all, the Saints torched the Texans with 27 run plays for 173 yards. Only six teams ran the ball fewer times than the Saints did last season and they still finished with the league with the No. 1-ranked offense. With the arrival of a powerful rushing attack in 2009, the Saints could be ready to make a run to Miami for Super Bowl XLIV.
  • Another thing that stood out was the Saints nasty defense, which forced three  more turnovers after earning three takeaways last week against Cincinnati. After replacing the recently waived Jason David, CB Jabari Greer snagged an athletic interception from QB Dan Orlovsky. However, the Saints first-round pick, CB Malcom Jenkins, allowed a 23-yard scoring strike from Orlovsky to WR Andre Davis and clearly needs more work before he becomes a major contributor.
  • QB Matt Schaub, who led the Texans to a score on his first possession of the game, looked sharp and ready to roll. He hit the league’s most gifted receiver, Andre Johnson, four times for 38 yards in the first quarter before both stars rested while holding on to an early lead. Schaub and Johnson appear to be more than ready to launch an assault on NFL secondaries.
  • Second-year RB Steve Slaton is now a tried and true veteran of Alex Gibbs’ one-cut, downhill running scheme. Slaton left the game in the first half with after six carries for 30 yards. The Texans could only manage 40 yards on 19 rushing attempts after his departure.
  • Houston’s secondary play was poor at best. All three of the Saints QBs — Brees, Mark Brunell and Joey Harrington — completed well over 50 percent of their passes. Without franchise CB Dunta Robinson, the Texans allowed 22 completions for 247 passing yards. Their poor tackling also contributed greatly to the Saints enormous rushing totals.
  • Texans DE Mario Williams is ready to launch his career to an All-Pro level. His 30.5 career sacks are a testament to his already dominating presence. His early pressure on Saints quarterbacks was constant and perpetually disruptive. Williams now has a teammate who is ready to serve as the perfect bookend in rookie DE Connor Barwin, who had a sack for the second consecutive week. The second-round pick from Cincinnati has a wicked spin move that has caught not only the eye of his coaches, but his opponents as well. Williams and Barwin could easily racked up a combined total of more than 20 sacks between them. In fact, count on it.

Favre’s revenge could help old team

Irony, a twist of fate or just poetic justice? Call it what you want, but while Brett Favre’s return is dripping with revenge and the lust to beat his former team, the questions remain: How much does Favre improve the Vikings, and how will the Green Bay Packers compete against their former savior?

No one within the Vikings organization knows for sure just how far the aging quarterback can take their team, or just how long he will last into the season. Even while he was able to avoid training camp and the wear and tear which would cause fatigue on his surgically repaired arm, Favre is willing to roll the dice and find out for sure how much he has left in the tank.

Despite all he has done in his legendary career, not even the great Favre is sure how it will end.

The team Favre spent 16 years leading and guiding probably knows the answers to those questions far better than anyone in Minnesota. In fact, the Packers’ intimate knowledge of Favre gives them a decisive edge in their quest to recapture the division crown. Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers is a highly-intelligent coach who will use players familiar with the foibles of their former teammate. In Capers’ new 3-4 scheme, CBs Charles Woodson and Al Harris will line up with a clear view of the quarterback more than ever. That advantage, combined with a Capers game plan tailored to Favre, means the Packers will most likely improve on their NFC-leading 22 interceptions from a year ago. Ironically, Favre led the league last season with the same interception total.

Favre’s arrival in Minnesota could divide one locker room and unify another. In the beginning, coaches, players and fans will be swept up in euphoria with the coming of Lord Favre. But with every pass thrown to the opponent, euphoria will give way to doubt. With every interception and turnover, those who now hail Favre’s arrival will question his level of commitment to the team, and his willingness to bond with his teammates.

As a divisional opponent, each misstep and mistake by Favre is a step in the right direction for the Packers. His failure will be their success, and vice versa. Throughout the season this will be a story worth watching.

The lessons of revenge are taught on playgrounds everyday. The lesson is very simple: BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU ASK FOR.

Observations from Saints-Bengals preseason game

In calling my first preseason game of the summer I noticed that it takes a little time reacclimating to the booth, the crew and all the elements required to help the broadcast go smoothly. It reminded me of how the coaches and players were using the preseason to iron out wrinkles in their game too.

During the call of the Saints-Bengals game there were a few things that stood out.

  • I noticed that QB Drew Brees has been on auto pilot for three years and running. His flawless execution of Sean Peyton’s offense continued Friday night when he took his team 80 yards in five plays for an easy score against the Bengals defense. Brees will attend his mother’s funeral on Monday, so his leadership and focus was all the more impressive.
  • I also noticed that TE Jeremy Shockey is ready to become a players again in New Orleans. Shockey caught three of Brees’ four passes on the 80-yard drive, including a terrific touchdown pass between three Cincinnati defenders. Resembling the Shockey of old, he provided an easy target for Brees, working the middle of the field and creating yards after the catch. Brees and Shockey have worked all offseason to develop a better feel for one another in the passing game and it seems to be paying off.
  • Gregg Williams, the Saints’ new defensive coordinator, said that he wouldn’t use his blitz packages during the preseson … but he just couldn’t help himself Friday against the Bengals. His group provided enough pressure to force three turnovers. The defense has shown an improvement in its intensity under Williams.
  • MLB Jonathan Vilma showed flashes of what once made him the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year. He dominated the first quarter with a fumble recovery and a heady interception which set the tone for the Saints’ new-look defense.
  • FS Darren Sharper made an immediate impact when he dropped down in the box and blasted Bengals RB Cedric Benson, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Vilma. With 54 career interceptions, Sharper is known more for his ball-hawking skills, but his willingness to get physical in the run game could be huge for the Saints in 2009.
  • It was clear to me that the officials could also use preseason games to workout the cobwebs. They refused to overturn some questionable calls when the replay revealed the call on the field was wrong.
  • The replay of Vilma’s fumble on his interception return revealed that the ball had come loose once his forearm hit the ground. However, the call on the field was upheld.
  • The replay of Chad Ochocinco stepping out of bounds was even more clear, but the officials upheld the call stating that Ochocinco was in bounds when the replay clearly showed he was not.

Oh well, what else is the preseason for.

Eagles are the perfect remedy for Vick’s rehab

Michael Vick speaks to the media in Philadelphia on Friday. (Matt Rourke / Associated Press)

Michael Vick speaks to the media in Philadelphia on Friday. (Matt Rourke / Associated Press)

The City of Brotherly Love can be both kind and cruel to its sports stars. Dr. J, Mike Schmidt and Donovan McNabb have heard both the boos and cheers before earning the city’s eternal embrace.

Even while the city requires its athletes to weather the storm of criticism, the Eagles organization is the perfect place for Michael Vick to rehabilitate his life and resurrect his career.

While in a West Coast system in Atlanta, Vick has admitted his regret over not fully committing to mastering the scheme taught by offensive coordinator Greg Knapp. Now, the Eagles will offer Vick a second chance to cultivate and marry his talents to the most QB-friendly system in football. With Andy Reid and McNabb as his mentor and tutor in the West Coast offense, Vick will have another opportunity to dedicate himself to play the position more with his arm than with his legs. Reid tutored both Brett Favre and McNabb in the system during their early years and watched them flourish to maturity within it.

Vick now has the same opportunity to learn the hidden secrets of the West Coast scheme from one of its best teachers, while watching McNabb, one of its best operators.

During his 10 seasons in Philly, McNabb has survived slings and arrows of every kind. His draft day diss, a Rush Limbaugh attack, an attempted coup d’état by Terrell Owens and a mid-season benching have not prevented McNabb from leading the Eagles to five conference title games. It is McNabb’s resiliency and fortitude that makes him a perfect role model for Vick. McNabb is cemented as the Eagles’ greatest QB in franchise history. Recently awarded a mega extension, he is well-secured in his job, but his upbringing in a mature family environment has equipped him to be even more secure within himself in every way possible.

Vick must also rehab his temperament, which at times reflected poorly amidst booing fans during his time in Atlanta. As a witness to the classy and sometimes jovial ways McNabb has deflected criticism, it would serve as the ultimate example for Vick to achieve maturity in public relations and crisis management.

Like Vince Lombardi before him, Reid is a rare coach who cares equally about his players as people along with their on-field performance. Even before Reid’s personal crisis within his own family, he has always believed in awarding second chances to contrite individuals looking for a better way to conduct their lives. As a coach who cares, Reid is perfect to assist Vick in finding a better way to lead a productive life on and off the field. Along with Tony Dungy, Reid will become a key member of Vick’s inner circle of leaders who will tell it to him straight and not sugar coat truths which have remained hidden from him in the past.

Lastly, with the Eagles, Vick has an understanding environment that will allow him time to heal as well as to resurrect skills worn over by the rust of two years of inactivity. Just as the San Francisco 49ers allowed QB Steve Young to fully rehab after he’d been battered and bruised during a tumultuous career in Tampa, Vick will need time to regain his form and take his game beyond where it has ever been. Just as Bill Walsh and Joe Montana afforded Young the opportunity to listen and learn from an elite coach/quarterback relationship while resurrecting his career, Vick will learn from Reid and McNabb while waiting quietly in the wings.

In all, it is the people — and not the place — that will have the biggest impact on Vick’s recovery. Working with Reid and McNabb, who themselves have endured personal crisis, Vick will have the perfect models of resiliency and steadfast commitment to success. Both Reid and McNabb have rolled with enough punches to make Rocky green with envy.

In the City of Brotherly Love, where comebacks are both admired and expected, Vick will enter the ring with all the support one man could ever hope for.

Campbell trying to seize opportunity

In the first round of the 2005 NFL Draft, Jason Campbell was selected to be the franchise quarterback for the Washington Redskins. But after several changes in offensive coordinators and schemes, along with the offseason flirtation with Pro Bowl QB Jay Cutler, many are left wondering if Campbell can grow through the adversity to become the playmaking quarterback the Redskins are looking for.

During my visit to Redskins training camp I found a positive and upbeat Campbell taking greater charge of the huddle and willing to take shots down the field with more aggressive throws against tight coverages.

The more assertive Campbell is a contrast to the one who led the Redskins’ 28th-ranked scoring offense one year ago. At times last year, Campbell seemed tentative and reluctant to push the ball down the field. Now he admits how his apprehension led to his conservative play.

“Last year I was too protective. I was more focused on avoiding turnovers, so I didn’t take chances,” says Campbell. “Now, its my second year in the system and I’m more sure of where to go with the ball. Last year it was a guessing game, but now the receivers are more sure, the tight ends are more sure, we all can help each other and be more aggressive with what we’re doing.”

Campbell accomplished his goal of avoiding turnovers — his six interceptions were the fewest in the league — but he failed to create explosive offensive plays and seldom did he lead his team into the end zone.

Campbell possesses the arm and ability most quarterbacks can only dream about. On this hot and humid day at Redskins Park, he is throwing with great accuracy and he’s attacking the defense, while forcing them to defend every blade of grass.

But will it carry over into games? Even his teamates are wanting to see Campbell become a fearless flame thrower.

“Campbell has to become more aggressive,” says Redskins TE Chris Cooley. “The biggest thing you want in a quarterback is to have balls, take over the team and take over games. He knows that.”

Campbell seems to know exactly how his teamates feel, and he knows what they want to hear.

“I look for us to put the ball downfield more this season,” says Campbell. “I can’t stare at it, but let it rip, play with an attitude and attack the attacker. I have to use my feet to my advantage vs. Cover 2 Man, and I gotta trust the wide receivers to compete for the ball and if they can’t catch it— defend it, protect the ball, but just take more chances.”

While in the midst of offseason rumors that the Redskins were attempting to trade for Cutler, head coach Jim Zorn dealt honestly with Campbell and now sees the near trade as a moment of adversity which could lead to a period of growth in Campbell’s overall development.

“When the story about Cutler broke I reached out to Jason and I brought him into my office,” says Zorn. “He dealt with it in a mature way and I wanted him to know that he is the guy, because, he is the guy.”

Zorn went on to say, “It has helped him grow. We want production. So now he has to take the next step beyond just becoming the starter. There is always something to work for. From starter to All-Pro. Adversity helps us grow to the next level.”

Campbell’s answer to the Cutler issue has to be reassuring to many Redskins fans. Instead of pouting, he had this to say: “The truth is I can’t let it define me. I can’t become negative or allow it to distract me. I’m a competitor, but first I have to compete against myself to become a better me.”

According to his teammates, the Campbell they see in training camp has become better in all areas, which suggests that he is ready to move on and lead the team.

“He makes more plays in practice and now has command of the huddle and the team,” says Cooley.

Center Casey Rabach says, “He commands more confidence and leadership now more than ever. He’s got the arm, and he’s got the legs to get us out of bad situations.”

Zorn also likes what he sees.

“We’re making more calls, he’s making better decisions. He has a hose for an arm and we’re going to use it, but we need protection too, so we can use it.”

In the final year of his contract Campbell is going to tell us once and for all what he is made of. If he comes through, he will have joined the other quarterbacks in the NFC East to earn a franchise quarterback contract like Eli Manning, Donovan McNabb and Tony Romo.

One thing is for certain: After the 2009 season has concluded, the Redskins will award a talented quarterback a blockbuster contract. The question is, will that quarterback be Campbell?

Bush defining own role for Saints

During his three short years in the NFL, Reggie Bush has already wooed the crowd with dazzling runs of every kind, from just about every position. Whether he is a punt returner, running back or wide receiver, Bush has successfully provided eye-popping plays which have consistently ended with a trip to the end zone. However, despite posting 3,149 yards and 20 touchdowns from the line of scrimmage, Bush has been criticized for what he hasn’t done.

Due to a knee injury, which Bush has declared to be fully rehabilitated, he has missed 10 games over the last two seasons. His critics have also chosen to declare him a running back who lacks the ability to successfully run between the tackles and excel in short yardage and goal-line situations. To that Bush says, “That’s absolutely crazy. There is plenty of footage of me running between the tackles. I do need to improve on my inside runs. It’s been slow to come, but I know hard work does pay off.”

Bush understands that an improved overall running game will add a deadly balance to an already potent Saints offense.

“Pierre Thomas and I both need to step our game up,” says Bush. “But it takes 11 guys to affect the run game, not just one.”

While many outside the Saints organization want to cast Bush as unsuitable for the role of inside power runner, he and many inside the building are comfortable with his role.

“My desired role is doing what I’ve always done,” says Bush. “Split out wide, run the ball and play special teams in the return game. My job title is creating headaches for coaches and provide matchup problems.”

His GM, Mickey Loomis, supports Bush by stating, “He doesn’t have to be a between-the-tackle runner, it’s not what we expected. We talked about his role in the offense before we took him in the 2006 draft and Sean Payton said, ‘I have a package for him,’ and knew he would be a special player.” For a creative play-caller like Payton, Bush is the ultimate weapon. Payton explained that in his role, Bush has made his offense better.

“My goal,” said Payton, “is to keep him healthy with the proper pitch count and get him touches at punt return, running back and wide receiver. He has now evolved into a more mature player who knows the offense. Even Jon Gruden told me that he had nightmares with us using Reggie like we have.”

For everyone who wants Bush to be their kind of runner, try allowing him to be his own kind of runner. Just as we watched Gale Sayers and Barry Sanders create a new artistic form of running, we should allow Bush to freely find his own road to the end zone.

The key for any running back is to avoid negative yards while seeking daylight to run. Bush is a natural, instinctive runner who has been finding the end zone since he first laced up a pair of cleats. Let’s not confine him to the runner’s box, which exist in our own minds. Rather, let’s allow him and his coaches to define his role, and let’s see where it will lead.

Three keys for Manning’s success in 2009

My Sirius Radio co-host Jim Miller put it best when he stated that at this time last year, the Colts hid Peyton Manning from the media so well that he may as well have been in a witness protection program.

Manning missed all of training camp and the entire preseason last year before rebounding to win his third NFL MVP award. This year, no one is more elated than Manning himself to be at training camp. And good thing he’s in camp, too, as Manning has a number of wrinkles to iron out before the season starts .

  • Manning must adjust to new coach Jim Caldwell. This should be an easy transition, as Caldwell has served as Manning’s quarterback coach over the last seven years. But Manning says things will be different. Manning knows Caldwell to be a meticulous note-taker who is extremely organized, and is very detailed. But Manning says the relationship becomes more formal with a greater offering of respect in every way.
    “I’m the guy sitting up front in the first row during meetings,” says Manning. “I, like everyone else, need to improve in order to impress our new head coach.”
  • Manning needs to establish a working chemistry between himself and the expected replacement for his long time favorite receiver Marvin Harrison. WRs Reggie Wayne and Anthony Gonzalez have been there before. But Pierre Garcon, Roy Hall, Taj Smith and rookie Austin Collie are competing to catch the coach’s eye and Manning’s laser-locked passes.
    Manning says the tradition of no rookie hazing began with his former coach, Tony Dungy, in the effort to get young players on the field contributing right away. Manning also believes the sooner his young receivers begin to think and act like veterans, the sooner they will begin to produce on the field. Manning believes he can best help his young receivers to acclimate to the Colts’ complex offense by helping them to understand the need for speed in the timing and tempo of their unique scheme.
  • Manning must take care of his legs. This offseason, while playing a round of golf with Bill Parcells, the future Hall of Fame coach reminded Manning of the need to take care of his legs in order to continue playing at a very high level. After last year’s scare with an infected bursa sac, Manning already knew that his legs are his most important asset, second only to his arm. His subtle moves inside the pocket and a strong sense of balance needed to throw the ball accurately are made possible by strength and flexibility in the lower extremities.
    Manning has started every one of his possible 176 regular-season games during his 11-year career. It’s been proven that his talent, hard work and football acumen make him the perfect quarterback impresario.

Cape Coders willing to give Vick a second chance

Patriots fans would support Michael Vick coming aboard if it would make them a Super Bowl contender. (John Bazemore / Associated Press)

Patriots fans would support Michael Vick coming aboard if it would make them a better team. (John Bazemore / Associated Press)

While resting on my final vacation before the start of the 2009 season, my stay in North Falmouth on Cape Cod was an interesting one.

I couldn’t help but poll the locals at Gourmet Brunch in Hyannis and the members of Otis Model Aircraft Club at the Crane Wildlife Airfields on the possibility of Michael Vick joining their beloved Patriots.

In this area, politics are second nature, but political correctness be damned. Almost to a man, New Englanders would support Vick’s addition to the team if it would make them a more viable Super Bowl contender.

As reports of a Vick sighting in the area circulated over the past few days, so has the excitement of adding the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback. Many Patriots fans wonder out loud about Tom Brady‘s full recovery from a season-ending knee injury. One astute fan used receiver Randy Moss as an example to explain how the organization would offer Vick a chance to rebuild his career and reputation while being associated with a winner.

Even now as I prepare for dinner with family and friends to munch on stuffed quahogs and crab cakes, only Sandy, our hostess and an avid dog lover, is opposed to having Vick on the team.

“He’s very good and fun to watch, but he has displayed poor character,” she said.

Sandy’s friend, Paulette, disagreed: “He’s paid his debt and served his time now so let’s move on. He could be an asset to our team, and [Bill] Belichick wouldn’t tolerate him being anything less than a good teammate.”

Vick received a unanimous vote of confidence from the men. However, the interesting take came from the women. Those who love the team more than dogs would cheer for Vick while he’s wearing a Patriots uniform.

While on the ferry heading over to Martha’s Vineyard, I can’t help but think back to when 13 colonies defied a king and country to become a place of freedom and rebirth. It’s the same rights Patriots fans seem to be more than willing to share with Michael Vick.

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